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Bilingual & Immigrant Education

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Before determining whether bilingual education "works," one first has to define the term.

But that is rarely easy, concludes a recent study of bilingual-education programs in Massachusetts by the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank based in Boston.

"Twenty-five years after passage of the bilingual-education law in Massachusetts, there is still no proof that the mandated approach to teaching works better than other approaches, such as intensive English instruction," says the report by Christine H. Rossell, a political science professor at Boston University who has written extensively about bilingual education.

But, Ms. Rossell cautioned in an interview, "you can't conclude from this report that bilingual education is a disaster either."

Caution aside, the report, released in July, is likely to fan the flames of one of the most heated debates in education.

Massachusetts, like a handful of other states, requires schools with a certain number of limited-English-proficient students to offer what is known as transitional bilingual education, in which students receive a portion of their instruction in their native languages while they make the transition into English.

In general, advocates of such programs argue that children learn best when they learn to read in their native languages, then apply their literacy skills to learning English. Bilingual education, they say, allows children to keep up in other subjects while learning English.

The Pioneer Institute study included visits to more than 75 classrooms across the state in all grade levels and in nine language groups. In those visits, Ms. Rossell found a huge variety in the way children were being taught--all under the label of transitional bilingual education.

That lack of a definition, Ms. Rossell said, makes it difficult to conclude whether transitional bilingual education "works" or not.

In some TBE programs for Cambodian students, for example, Ms. Rossell found "backwards bilingual education." The students learned to read and write in English first, then in their native language, which uses a non-Roman alphabet.

Spanish-speaking students generally received more instruction in their native language, she found.

Copies of "Bilingual Education in Massachusetts: The Emperor Has No Clothes" are available for $15 each from the Pioneer Institute, 85 Devonshire St., 8th Floor, Boston, Mass. 02109. Or call (617) 723-2277.

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